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Gore Vidal: a celebrity, a life writ large

Gore Vidal was known as much for his fierce public spats as he was for collected works that included 25 novels, 200 essays, six plays, several screenplays, and a National Book Award for essays on the United States.

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He was perhaps most admired for his way with words, both in writing and extemporaneously. When The New York Times asked him what he felt upon news that William F. Buckley had died, he replied: "I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred," he responded.

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"Gore Vidal was a writer's writer – he'll be remembered for his zest for words and the topics he chose,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media." “In an age before 24/7 cable, Vidal's novels were an entry into politics and history and the American way. His keen intellect and sharp tongue will remain cutting edge for a long time to come."

But it was the ideas beneath his apt turns of phrase that also drew admiration.

“Vidal believed that words, and the powerful ideas they could convey, if deployed properly, were too precious a resource to waste on those who had neither the education nor the wit to appreciate them,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, associate professor of communications at Villanova University. “He did not suffer fools lightly, yet strenuously championed those writers, artists, and thinkers whose ideas provided the bracing tonic or slap in the face we needed to remind us of the repeated failures of courage and imagination, particularly of our government and our politicians, in post-World War II America.”

Alongside Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal became a regular fixture on talk shows, in an era when it was stylish to have public intellectuals and authors to discuss topics of the day. To some, this watered down what might otherwise have been his legacy.

“In the end, he will be remembered as much for his stints on Johnny Carson as for his writings,” says Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington’s, Sociology Department. “He realized that this is not a nation of readers, and perhaps he didn't take academic pedigree seriously because of this. Most of his writings won't endure, and he will be remembered as a personality – a fate which, I suspect, he would have anticipated.”

Professor Agger notes that what made Vidal so American is that he didn’t attend college, after having left the military and been offered admission to Harvard. “We allow our intellectuals to be self-educated, as Vidal was,” he says.

“His greatest work was, perhaps, his life itself – an American epic which sprawled beyond literature to encompass Hollywood, Broadway, Washington and the Bay of Naples, with incidental roles for almost every major American cultural and political figure of the 20th century," wrote the British newspaper the Guardian. For who else “gave JFK the idea for the Peace Corps, was called in to rescue the script of Ben-Hur, ran unsuccessfully for both Congress and the Senate, and got into a fistfight with Norman Mailer?"

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